Chilliwack school board split on meeting with MLAs

Maahs disagrees with Neufeld's motion to push for more funds for cash-strapped school district

Two Chilliwack school board trustees have voted against meeting with local MLAs to fight for increased funding for the school district.

Trustee Barry Neufeld made a motion to develop a rationale for an immediate increase in funding, and to then present that information to both John Martin and Laurie Throness by the end of March.

But Trustee Heather Maahs said she’d rather they spent their energy “rolling up our sleeves and figuring out” the new, leaner budget imposed by the provincial government. Trustee Martha Wiens agreed with her.

“We are in this position because we decided to spend every nickel,” Maahs said. “We used to have a surplus but now we have nothing to fall back on.”

She also called a recent letter to the editor penned by fellow Trustee Paul McManus “disrespectful to the premier.”

In the letter, published last week in The Progress, McManus stated that school boards have already “cut their meager budgets to the bone.” In response to Premier Christy Clark’s suggestion that boards simply “pick the low hanging fruit”, McManus suggested that voters consider Clark in the same way on election day.

But Maahs and Wiens were alone in voting against the motion, and the board voted 5-2 to meet with the MLAs.

Board chair Silvia Dyck spoke strongly in favour of the meeting, and also defended the board’s previous spending habits.

“I do not apologize for spending the money we have,” she said, adding that “increasing needs have put pressure on us we didn’t foresee.

“It behooves all of us to write letters in support of public education,” she said, including parents, teachers, trustees and the wider community.

“I will never apologize for spending money on our students,” Dyck added.

Trustee Walt Krahn also supported Neufeld’s motion, and dismissed the idea that school boards should stockpile funds.

“We cannot withhold money in favour of building a surplus,” Krahn said. Trustee Dan Coulter pointed out that school districts that have socked away money are the reason the premier has cut their budgets. In February, school boards were told they would have to cut $29 million from their cumulative budgets this coming year, and $25 million in the next.

In Chilliwack, the cuts equal about $1.3 million over the two years.

Neufeld responded to Maahs’ opposition by explaining that it’s not unusual for the board to meet with provincial representatives anyway, and they would do so in a “respectful but assertive” manner.

“It’s time we had a serious and heartfelt talk,” he said. “We have a duty to advocate for public education.

“Chilliwack school board has been more frugal and careful with money than other school districts but the cost are going up faster than the savings,” Neufeld said, including costs for heating and lighting. They want to explain to both MLAs how the new budget cuts will transfer to cuts within the classroom.